Chief of Joint Operations, Vice-Admiral David Johnston, and Director General Air Operations, Air Commodore Vincent “Joe” Iervasi on Australian operations in Iraq

25 November 2014 | Transcript

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.

Today I will provide you with a further operations update in the Middle East region, with a particular focus on Iraq and give you some insights into some operations that we’ve been providing in support of the Baiji oil refinery near Mosul and Kirkuk.

But as a general comment, the tempo for us across the Middle East region remains high. I had the good fortune of visiting both Afghanistan and our bases in the Middle East last week, and got a good sense from that that our people are busy, but their moral is good; and they have a real sense of purpose around the work that they are doing. Which I might remind you includes, as we’ve discussed, the air operations over Iraq, the work that we’re doing in Afghanistan to build capacity and support the Afghan National Security Forces; the maritime security operations near the Gulf of Aden, where we’ve had some considerable recent success. And all of that’s supported by our women and men that operate from our support base in the Middle East, who provide the communications, logistic support, welfare support, to ensure that our various operational conduct is able to be performed.

If I can take you and perhaps just restate our objectives, particularly in Iraq, for you, and I’d remind us that ISIL continues to pose a serious terrorist threat to Iraq, to the region, and to the broader international community. From an Australian perspective, our objective remains to work with the Iraqi Government to ensure it’s able to keep its people safe, and to combat ISIL.

Our national actions are of course part of a broader coalition involving 60 different nations, including regional nations and neighbouring nations in Iraq who are coming together to be able to support the Iraqi Government and its Security Forces.

In general terms, the advance of ISIL across Iraq has slowed. ISIL continues to reduce their profile to air attacks. Predictably, what we have seen is that ISIL is increasingly moving to conduct asymmetric attacks, specifically through the use of improvised explosive devices, and suicide bombers. Sadly these attacks continue the pattern of ISIL harming innocent civilians. But Iraqi Security Forces are demonstrating resolve, and what we’re seeing is an increasingly number of Iraqi locals are responding to their slowly-changing security environment, and in a number of areas are starting to form groups that are rising and starting to counter the influence of ISIL within their towns. The gains are modest, but they’re important, and the signs that we’re seeing are certainly welcome.

For our special operations contribution following successful negotiations with the Iraqi Government we gained the necessary approvals that have enabled the movement of the Special Operations Task Group into Baghdad. And that move is now largely completed. The initial focus for the Task Group has been on establishing accommodation, their working space, getting the communications and security arrangements in place that we need, and they have commenced engagement with key Iraqi Security Force Officials around the advise and assist mission.

As I’ve said previously, our Special Operations Group will be working with the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism service, with the objective of reinforcing that service, which is another special operations group, in order to enable it to conduct activities against ISIL.

Our personnel have commenced the advise and assist mission, largely within, at this point, the Baghdad Diplomatic Security Centre, which is within the broader precinct of the Baghdad International Airport. Our personnel have commenced assisting both in terms of the immediate operations that are conducted out of the Baghdad diplomatic security centre, where we are provided coordination of close air support, and we are making preparations as required to go forward to forward operating bases with our partner counter-terrorism service, where we will work down to the battalion headquarters level in that advise-assist role.

For our air campaign it’s continued with significant results since I last briefed you. In the past week Australian C-130 airlift aircraft have conducted a further four humanitarian air drop missions, this time over the Mount Sinjar region where we have delivered 32 tonnes of food, water, tents, and blankets. The objective from the provision of these stores is really about providing support before winter sets in in that area, and it can be a harsh winter, due to the impact of ISIL in displacing those people and limiting their access to food and shelter. So that brings to total number of six the humanitarian air drop missions that we have conducted since the start of our operations.

Additionally, over the last 20 days since I spoke to you we’ve released through air combat operations weapons on 20 occasions, which now account for up to 47 different occasions that we have conducted weapons delivery since we commenced strike operations. I will offer you a description of a few of those operations to give you an indication of the nature of the activities that we’ve performed.

In the past fortnight, a weapon system operator, the back-seater in an Australian F-18 Super Hornet, while operating near Kirkuk observed an ISIL militant moving to what was later discovered to be a large, well-established, and hidden network of caves and bunkers that were concealed in a hillside. Within days a subsequent multi-national airstrike involving 20 aircraft attacked 44 targets, complimented by a large-scale ground operation that was led by the Kurdish security forces, that rapidly entered that area, cleared it of the remaining ISIL militants, and with some reporting indicating that over 100 ISIL fighters were killed in those clearance operations.

Also, recently an Australian strike crew took a mission command role leading the planning and coordination for another multi-national airstrike against a major improvised explosive device factory in Mosul. This was a highly complex mission, with the target being within a multi-building compound located in a fairly densely-populated area in Mosul, and involved attacks on 34 targets in that area. The IED factory was severely damaged, with many parts assessed as destroyed.

I previously mentioned the strategic importance of oil refineries within Iraq and Syria, and as I’ve said on that occasion gaining access to oil or denying oil production capabilities has been a clear ISIL objective, either as a revenue generation requirement for themselves, or to deny the Iraqi Government the access to oil production for its own revenue purposes. In June you had seen the Baiji oil refinery, which is the largest refinery within Iraq, was fiercely contested by both Iraqi and ISIL forces, but subsequently held by a small Iraqi security detachment that remained within the facility and the compound. But it was cut off from the surrounding township and cut off from supporting security forces, very much isolated in trying to defend that refinery, which resulted in it being supported by airdrop-supplied munitions and food in order to sustain those forces. That refinery is capable of producing between 170,000 to 300,000 barrels of oil per day, and if you based it on a $80 per barrel oil price it’s able to generate about $13m worth of revenue per day.

The other important part of Baiji is its strategic location. So Baiji lies on the main highway north of Baghdad en route to Mosul, so it’s a very important line of communication between the north and the south. In the past fortnight the Iraqi Army 1st and 6th Division, supported by Iraqi militia forces, have fought their way north from Baghdad to successfully link up with the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, which is the group that has been inside the oil refinery holding it. This action has enabled the security forces to retake that area, including the town of Baiji and the oil refinery that is just outside it. What that’s achieved it’s denied ISIL access to that facility, it has secured it as a oil refinery that is available to the Iraqi Government, and without access to that refinery ISIL can’t access the finances that they use to fuel their own machines, to be able to generate revenue to buy weapons, to pay people, including their own fighters. And what we’ve seen is an Iraqi media – Defence spokesman indicate that what they’ve observed in and around that town is a very large IED production capabilities that are being now impacted because their security forces are sweeping through there.

Australian forces have been part of this operation to retake Baiji and the oil refinery near it, and we’ve been conducting air strike operations in support of that effort. We’ve employed more than 20 500-pound bombs against targets that have included vehicles, enemy compounds, convoys, logistic lines, and fighting positions. So we’ve been very much a part of the effort to recapture the area around Baiji, and our own assessments from those missions indicate that at least seven of the targets that we’ve been engaging have been destroyed.

Those operations don’t just involve our Super Hornet strike aircraft; we’ve increasingly been using the E-7 early warning and control aircraft, and our air-to-air refuelling aircraft as part of the package that supports those strike activities.

Finally, if I can just update you on our maritime operations in the Middle East region. HMAS Toowoomba, which is the currently deployed Anzac frigate operating in that area, on 20 November was involved in a further drug interdiction. This seizure involved up to 324 kilograms of heroin, with a street value of about AU$129m, found inside a dhow, well hidden, but was the second drug interdiction that that ship had performed within a 72-hour period. That interdiction, on top of the work Toowoomba has earlier done it its deployment, has taken out of the hands of drug smugglers about a half-a-billion dollars worth of drugs. A very significant amount, and we know those drugs are used by drug cartels to finance a range of activities, including terrorism activities.

If I were to roll up the complete contribution of some of our ships over a period looking back to Toowoomba, HMAS Darwin and Melbourne who operated in that region before it, in total between those ships we have conducted a number of drug intercepts which amount to about AU$3.5b worth of drugs that have been removed as a consequence of our intercept operations.

I’ll complete the update there, and I’m happy to take any questions. And I’ve got with me again Air Commodore Joe Iervasi from our air operations centre; able to share the questions between us. Thank you.

QUESTION:                           

When do you expect the SOTG to start moving from Baghdad towards those battalion-level headquarters?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Some of the operations we’ll do within the Baghdad Diplomatic Security Centre. So some of our training, even at the battalion headquarters level, can occur there, because the Iraqi SOF [Special Operations Forces] also have operational headquarters in that region, and that’s where we’re starting. We will move to further operations outside. It in part depends on the preparedness of the Iraqi forces to move, and the operations to which they will contribute to. So I’d certainly be expecting that moves would start within the next fortnight, but it depends on the pattern of the Iraqi operations, and then their need for us to be able to come and provide that assistance to them.

QUESTION:                           

The Iraqi forces generally seem to be reluctant to stand and fight, but the troops in Baiji, and it sounds like there’s only a relatively small number of them, seem to have made a stand. What was different about them?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I think in part the forces that held the Baiji area were from the Counter-Terrorism Service. They’re SOF forces, so their better trained and more able of the Iraqi Security Forces, they have done an outstanding job against very difficult circumstances in holding that area. They have been supported by the coalition air strikes, the Iraqi Army’s own resupply to get food, munitions in there to be able to hold that area, but it has been very successful.

But to more broadly answer your question, I think last time I mentioned that we’d seen the success of the Iraqi Security Forces in pushing south to provide security to the Ashura pilgrimage; they were active and were successful in that, the work that they’ve done, and it has been a tough, slow fight heading north from Baghdad. They’ve encountered multiple IED emplacements as they push north on the highway; they’ve had suicide bombers, particularly in vehicle-born IEDs, have been striking them repetitively along the way, but they have maintained the momentum. So, some days have been quicker than others, but it’s quite a journey from Baghdad all the way up to Baiji, and they have managed it and have achieved that part of their objective.

So we are seeing in areas their resolve improving, their confidence improving, and that’s leading to that change in environment and momentum on the ground.

QUESTION:                           

Were they advised by anyone? They weren’t advised by us; were the Americans with them?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

They weren’t advised by us. I’m not sure whether they had potentially other Coalition soft partners in there with them. But they’ve certainly been supported by the broader Coalition in order to enable them to continue to hold that ground.

QUESTION:                           

How important was that for Iraq as a whole, that they actually made a stand and held the place?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I think it’s enormously important because the vitality of the Baiji Oil Refinery to Iraq, but equally for the confidence of the Iraqi security forces in being able to counter ISIL in an area where ISIL holds an objective – that is, they wanted to hold that refinery, or get in and take that refinery area. And the Iraqi security forces have been able to demonstrate that they can counter ISIL and recovery territory.

QUESTION:                           

[inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

There is a momentum shift, but it isn’t consistent, so I wouldn’t try to indicate that there’s a broad changing environment. But there is a positive changing environment. So the western approaches to Baghdad, they still remain fairly fragile. We’re seeing a significant attack by ISIL in Ramadi. So they continue to apply pressure in the western approaches to Baghdad. Iraqi security forces are holding the key ground and facilities in that area. But more broadly there is a shift. And the operations up towards Baiji are an example of that; the operations down south equally towards Kobani were an example. So we’re seeing the evidence on the ground that is indicating that shift is occurring.

QUESTION:                           

Counter-terrorism service, is that the thing that’s under command of [indistinct]?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I’m not sure who that – it is made up of multiple units inside it. We can check and come back to you.

QUESTION:                           

[inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We can provide that. They have changed leaders recently. In a number of their brigade level and divisional level command, so we’ll need to check and we can get that advice to you.

QUESTION:                           

The Special Operations Task Group, where are they likely to be operating? In the area west of Baghdad?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Within, first, as I said – within the Baghdad Diplomatic Security Centre. But they’ll go where they need to go. So they’ve got quite a bit of freedom in terms of depending on where the Counter-Terrorism Service needs to fight. We will do our normal risk assessments about the viability of moving to particular locations and the support available to us. But we’ve got that flexibility to be able to support them in a range of areas.

QUESTION:                           

[inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We’ve got the support vehicles in-country with them, yes.

QUESTION:                           

[indistinct] A hundred killed [indistinct] or round about. Were many of those or any of those part of the leadership group? And how successful has it been overall? Do you have an assessment of how successful you’ve been in getting the leaders?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We’ve seen a number of reports that a number of ISIL leaders both out to the west and in the north, have been successfully attacked and targeted, some in deliberate attacks against them, others because they’ve been in an area where we’re conducting strike operations. So there is no doubt that there is an impact on ISIL’s leadership capability. They are able – and I wouldn’t overstate it – they are able to regenerate leadership. But every time you lose a leader with experience, with knowledge of the area that they’re operating in, that’s been intimately involved in planning and preparing for operations. That has an impact on forces. And it would have an impact.

QUESTION:                           

[indistinct]

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We haven’t seen any information to confirm it, and I think increasingly it looks less likely than likely.

QUESTION:                           

The British SAS, according to media reports in the UK, are operating in groups targeting ISIL formations. Do we have any SAS doing a similar thing, or do we have any SAS with them?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No.

QUESTION:                           

You mentioned that the strike against the IED facility in Mosul was in a heavily – densely populated, I think you said, area. Are you certain there were no civilian casualties in that? And if so, how?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We conduct the full assessments after – you can never be certain. I’ve got no evidence that would indicate that there are any civilian casualties, but we have a very mature level of assessment that follows any of our strike activities to enable to us to monitor that. We’ve seen no reports. Joe, are you able to add any further clarity to that particular strike activity?

JOE IERVASI:                         

Thanks sir. So prior to a strike of that level of complexity, there is a fair amount of intelligence and surveillance that goes in there to qualify exactly who may actually be present at the time the strike is going to be conducted. So the strikes are coordinated to both minimalize any impact there might be for civilian casualties or damage to civilian property that is not directly involved in ISIL forward movements. And secondly we establish what’s called a pattern of life to understand who is generally moving around that area. And generally speaking, leading up to that particular strike the pattern of life indicated that it was ISIL moving in and around those facilities there. So by extension, it was highly unlikely that there were non-ISIL individuals involved or in the vicinity of those particular strikes.

QUESTION:                           

[inaudible]

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

[indistinct] that many of you are seeing. I think not long after the first strikes there was a suggestion that he had been active with a release of a public announcement, I recall, I think there was still word going on to verify that. But we’ve not seen categorical evidence to suggest that he’s deceased.

QUESTION:                           

And to be clear on that, so it is now on balance, you believe, likely he is still alive.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes. I’ve not seen anything to indicate on balance that he’s dead.

QUESTION:                           

[indistinct] that any Australian citizens are among the casualties that you’ve reported?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

None that we are aware of, no.

QUESTION:                           

[inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We will as we rotate all of our forces. There are – and Joe can talk through it. Particularly with air crew, they need to keep a range of competencies in various air flying skills. You can do some of that in an operational theatre but not all of them. So there’s both a rate of effort in terms of how much we would commit them to an operational flying rate. But the need to refresh core skills that can’t be done in an operating area. So we would plan naturally, to do a rotation for them.

QUESTION:                           

Has there been any change in anti-aircraft weapons? Any missiles or ground fire?

JOE IERVASI:                         

No, none seen. So we keep a fairly close eye on what may be movements into the area of surface-to-air missiles, but we have got no indications that the threat to our aircraft operations has increased in any material way.

QUESTION:                           

Has there been any progress towards a broader training role for ADF troops? I know that President Obama sort of flagged(*) the possibility for the Americans, and I think the CDF actually raised the possibility in an Estimates hearing a few weeks ago as well, that that might be the next stage of the mission. Is there any planning going on around that at this stage?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We are scoping options should Government need them. So we’re looking at both what the campaign is, in terms of how the government of Iraq may wish to continue to build their own forces and move on an offensive; how the Coalition effort may contribute to that. So we continue to evaluate potential options. We don’t have a firm plan around that at the moment, but we’re evaluating what might need to be done, and be ready when required to bring options forward.

QUESTION:                           

In Afghanistan, the Americans announced this week that they were going to keep carrying out combat operations until 2015. Will that affect us at all? And do we revise our position as to how we operate there as a result?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We stopped our combat-related operations at the end of last year, and have pulled the forces out. So we are there in an advise-assist capacity. Now, we don’t have combat operations – or that combat effect in there, and there’s no plan changed to that [sic].

QUESTION:                           

Something we were talking about earlier. How profound is the shift by IS forces to the use of IEDs and suicide bombers, and what do you read from that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It is a shift around taking an asymmetric approach. So when you can’t act like a conventional military force, you have to find other ways of achieving your objective. That means you can’t mass force, you can’t make major offensives or gains, because that requires a massive force to be able to achieve. So it localises your actions, it limits some of your options. It can be difficult to counter and the nature of improvised explosive devices mean that they pose a threat. They’re non-discriminatory. They impact those who are fighting and those who are innocent civilians operating in the areas where they may be laid. But it is consistent with a pattern of change from acting as a conventional military-type force to one that is trying to achieve objectives through more limited means. And it is a very limited means.

QUESTION:                           

[indistinct] Given the work that we put into understanding and countering IEDs in Afghanistan, how much of our advise and assist mission now turns to dealing with that threat?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

And it would. So we have counter-IED capabilities within our forces. We’re well-trained and prepared to deal with them. So some of the advise and assist training roles that we would anticipate providing to the counter-terrorism services would be in counter-IED. So that would be part of how we would assist in upskilling them; give them the confidence of how to cope or test train and check for these devices before they move. So that they’ve got the ability to do so.

QUESTION:                           

[inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Just a part of it. It’d be an element of it – it’d be, some of our work and we’re seeing the requests around leadership training, mentoring, engineering training, sniper operations. So there’s quite a range of military skill sets that the counter-terrorism service is seeking that we would assist them in their training. And we’ll bring all that as part of our skill [indistinct] to them.

QUESTION:                           

[inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That is, the forces do have the joint targeted air controllers within them. So in part that advise-assist mission is, how do you bring the Coalition airstrike capabilities and integrate it into the Iraqi security force military plans. The JTAC role is an element of that. So our skill set is, if you’ve got these types of military capabilities available to you; how do you develop your operational planning on the basis that you’ll have access to them? And then how would you execute. And we would make sure because of the relationships we have, particularly with the air strike, is we would be part of that JTAC role.

QUESTION:                           

[inaudible]

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes.

QUESTION:                           

[indistinct] putting them pretty close to the front line.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No, you could be conducting a JTAC role from the Baghdad Diplomatic Security Centre. So if you’ve got the tools, and often that could be you’re remotely observing an incident by an overhead UAV that’s providing full-motion video back to a control centre. A JTAC could be operating in that environment and assisting a force that’s well forward from it.

QUESTION:                           

But we have had JTACs guiding strikes that we’ve carried out thus far?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have.

QUESTION:                           

[indistinct] Kobani, for instance?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

The reporting I’m indicating is, it still remains a street by street prospect. I think increasingly the gain in streets by the Kurdish forces. They are gently turning back the tide and the amount of territory that was previously held by ISIL. The air operations continue. They remain highly effective, including in diminishing the supply by ISIL into the Kobani area. I think when we spoke 20 days ago the momentum had started to shift, then. That remains a gradual shift. Kobani clearly hasn’t fallen. There are additional fighters that have come into the area. And I think the prospects, while still not entirely clear, are improving.

QUESTION:                           

[indistinct] in your introductory remarks that – it was just the wording you used. You said the advance of ISIL across Iraq has slowed. So are they still advancing in some areas?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

They are still on the offensive in some areas. And I mention Ah Ramadi as an area where in the western approaches to Baghdad that they’re conducting offensive operations. So they are still seeking to gain territory in areas important to them, yes.

QUESTION:                           

Are you working and the Coalition partners working towards a spring counter-offensive? What’s the long term timetable?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That’s still to be determined. And in part depends on how quickly the Iraqi forces are able to rebuild mass and recover the numbers. Increasingly as the advise-assist mission occurs and we can upskill their capability, they will have the capacity to go on the offensive. Now, whether that’s just in a measured manner rather than a broader offensive, that may take a little more time to build up more brigades than they’ve currently got available. My view at the moment is, we’re helping reskill and improve the resolve of the currently available Iraqi security forces. With time they will add to that force. And that’s when we’ll see a much more broader shift to an offensive. That will not occur before next year.

QUESTION:                           

The place where you suspect they’re advancing most is that western Baghdad area?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Where ISIL is advancing most? That’s where they’re applying the most pressure at the moment.

QUESTION:                           

You mentioned some area specifically before?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Ah Ramadi. The township of Ramadi. It’s between Baghdad and the town [indistinct].

QUESTION:                           

Does ISIL control Ramadi, or?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No. The offensive at the moment – they have gained some territory but not the key government areas, including the Iraqi operating areas in that location. So they’ve certainly, we’ve seen – poured what we think are hundreds of fighters into that area, but they certainly don’t have control of the area and the Iraqi Security Forces remain very active in that area.

QUESTION:                           

I believe the Government is very interested in your advice on how long training the Iraqi security forces and the Australian mission will take; the likely timeframe. What are you telling Government on that, broadly?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It’s still very early days, so our special ops guys are only been in there [sic] for about the last week, so it will take us more time to understand, even for those who we are working with, how much work they need to get to a level to be more successful. We’re only seeing a part of the Iraqi Security Forces, clearly there are many more of them. That will become a joined up coalition view, but we’re not yet there in order to have that clear understanding, it would be…

QUESTION:                           

[Interrupts] Likely years still?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It’s certainly going to be months to bring them up, but depending – if you look at the full scale that the Government of Iraq might wish to have its security forces operating in, that could be much longer than that.

QUESTION:                           

Are our surveillance aircraft, the Wedgetail, is that being used to assist airstrikes only over Iraq? Or is it being used to assist some of the coalition strikes over Syria?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Only over Iraq.

QUESTION:                           

Do you have a ballpark date – sorry Brendan – on when the Iraqis might be ready to try and retake a city like Mosul?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No, I don’t yet. I think that there would need to be significant planning around that. And some – I mentioned that we’re seeing pockets of resistance. It will be both potentially actions that are occurring within the communities in Mosul, supported by Iraqi Security Forces, but I don’t have a clear timeframe yet for when that might occur.

QUESTION:                           

The estimates of the numbers of ISIL personnel have sort of ranged from relatively small, round the many hundreds back when Mosul was taken, and seem to have increased up to 30,000 or so. Do you have a current estimate of the numbers of fighters they have and whether their numbers are actually declining or increasing still?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It has been very difficult to establish precisely because we don’t have – and the coalition doesn’t have troops on the ground. So our ability to have that clear insight into the numbers is difficult and it – we’ve seen some confusion between what might be an ISIL fighter and what might be Sunni militia that have either been co-opted or coerced to be fighting alongside them. So that – I’ve seen numbers in the thousands of ISIL fighters, potentially supported by thousands of Sunni militia but it isn’t exactly clear to us how many there are. But I expect it’s in the [*] thousands.

QUESTION:                           

And what are the chances of the Sunni militia rising up generally? Some have and they’ve suffered for it. Is there are chance of a general uprising among the Sunni tribes?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Too early to tell yet. It has occurred in pockets and they have suffered – I think what we’re seeing in some areas where ISIL is attempting to govern, they haven’t done it well and that’s caused the community to fracture; whether they can’t get food or electricity provision in those areas is not being managed, so the community is increasingly started to disassociate themselves from it. But it does also require a degree of support from the Iraqi Security Forces, so it’s the – they’re not imperilled and slaughtered as we have seen some of the communities out to the west of Baghdad have been.

QUESTION:                           

Some international commentary says that the Government in Baghdad isn’t doing enough at the moment to reach out to the Sunni tribal leaders. What’s your assessment of that; how’s that going?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yeah, I think it is early days there too. The Government does appear to look more inclusive. I’m sure that Sunni militia would be looking for clear evidence that that’s the case, so I think the steps are in the right direction, but they don’t appear yet to be sufficient enough for those who are highly sceptical, based on years of observation of the previous Iraqi Government and the way they were treated – I think they will need some fairly clear and compelling evidence to indicate that there’s a general change in the tide from the central government in the way they’re going to treat the Sunnis in particular.

QUESTION:                           

Why are we doing air drops in Mount Sinjar again? I was sort of left with the impression that most of the people had managed to get off there previously.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Well some stayed and chose to stay after the activity, partly because I think they thought it was safer in that area than some of the regions around Sinjar. But they have had limited access to food and water and the winter in that region is a tough winter to go through; so it’s just providing enough to the group that remain, with certainly not anywhere near where we were months ago, where we had tens of thousands believed to be on the mountain and seeking to get off. This group isn’t seeking to get off, they’re just seeking support to be able to sustain life in that area.

QUESTION:                           

How many people are still up there, do you know?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I don’t have the exact numbers – Joe I don’t know if you’ve seen that…

VINCENT IERVASI:                

No, I don’t, but I guess another point about the air drops has been, it’s not just Australia doing the air drops. So there’s been the multinational coalition doing air drops; in fact, we’ve been part of the coordinated air drop effort over a number of days. In fact, the Iraqi Air Force themselves have also been conducting humanitarian air drops into Mount Sinjar.

QUESTION:                           

Are you able to give us any more detail – you mentioned an attack on a complex, a bunker complex or an underground storage complex. Sounds fascinating, but – so what happened? An observer, or one of the weapons officer…

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Joe would you like to talk through that?

VINCENT IERVASI:                

Yeah, thanks sir.

QUESTION:                           

When it was and where it was.

VINCENT IERVASI:                

So it was in the vicinity of Kirkuk and one of the tasks of the fighters while they’re on combat air patrol is either they’re on a deliberate target, or they’re actually conducting their own level of surveillance as well. It just so happened they were monitoring a number of movements on the ground and with the TV and infra-red pod that we carry on the Super Hornet – so both a day-TV camera and a heat-seeking night camera – they were able to track individuals moving into what appeared to be mountainous area and then those contacts are seen to disappear. So that would indicate that they’ve gone into somewhere. On subsequent investigation, that was confirmed to be a series of tunnels, which then led to a subsequent, deliberate targeting effort.

QUESTION:                           

With what, with some sort of bunker-busting bombs, or..?

VINCENT IERVASI:                

Well there’s a range of weapons – certainly the weapons that we are carrying there at the moment do have a level of capability against caves, so it’s got a lot more to do with your approach angle, the weapon impact angle. There are other nations that are flying that have – I guess, for want of a better term – bunker-busters; so they’re weapons with a hardened case that allows a deeper penetration. So that’s the nuts and bolts of, I guess, air strike.

QUESTION:                           

Would this have happened at night, all this activity, or daytime? Our people using equipment that spotted them at night, or..?

VINCENT IERVASI:                

Well, we’re flying at all stages, both day and night. Predominantly, the Super Hornet and our level of training is well-equipped to operate at night, so predominantly we’ve been moving into the night arena and that’s where the infrared targeting pod provides a distinct advantage as well.

QUESTION:                           

And sorry – but would these people have known they were being watched? Or would our people have been too high for them to have heard them?

VINCENT IERVASI:                

They certainly would have been, most likely, too high to be heard, but I guess that’s the part of a permissive air capability; that’s part of the issues that ISIL has to deal with is they don’t know where the next strike’s going to come from.

QUESTION:                           

Sorry, the final strike – would that have been days or hours, or whatever after the initial spotting of them?

VINCENT IERVASI:                

That final strike, I believe, was done within 24 hours.

QUESTION:                           

Can you actually angle the bombs in through the openings of caves, that sort of thing? You mentioned…

VINCENT IERVASI:                

You can.

QUESTION:                      

Absolutely delighted to hear you have day-time and night-time infrared cameras on your Hornets; when might we see the output of it?

[Laughter]

VINCENT IERVASI:                

Our…

QUESTION:                           

We discussed this thorny topic before. I know that we have a little more detail now, of course.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Our approach on it hasn’t changed from our previous discussions.

QUESTION:                           

Would there have been any secondary explosions in those attacks?

VINCENT IERVASI:                

I haven’t seen the weapons system video response of that one and certainly with bunkers at times, it’s difficult to ascertain. The explosions are generally confined underground. When we went for the improvised explosive device manufacturing factory, as described earlier, there were certainly a number of secondary explosions there because that was above ground and it was easy to confirm that that facility was being used for those devices. But sometimes you can see secondaries when you’re hitting a cave; sometimes you can’t. Depends on what’s stored underground and how deep underground it actually is.

QUESTION:                           

How far do they go back in? Are they recently excavated, or what are they?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I don’t think we’ve got that information [indistinct]…

QUESTION:                           

What impact, if any, is Secretary Hagel’s resignation going to have on the overall mission here and the overall strategy?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I don’t think it will have a significant impact. The military campaign, because it’s led by the Government of Iraq, that’s the lead issue for it – so the change in the US leadership, I think we’ll have to wait and see, but all of us are working in support of the Government of Iraq and its leadership hasn’t changed.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] plans to relocate elements of the air task group away from AMAB?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have had a move of some of the capabilities due to runway works in one of the areas that we’re operating in. So we’ve recently moved some of them, but that’s partly just around some engineering activities that are occurring.

QUESTION:                           

That’s just the Super Hornets, is it?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

The fighters – they need the longer runway strip, so the fighters are aircraft that will first be suffered by any runway changes.

QUESTION:                           

When did that happen; how long’s that been?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That movement between the two locations occurred over the last fortnight.

QUESTION:                           

Sorry, so the Super Hornets aren’t operating from…

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

In our Middle East base, so we’re still operating in our Middle Eastern base, there’s just been a move from a location that’s about 100 or so kilometres from our base that we operate otherwise from. You recall the sensitivities that we have over that country and…

QUESTION:                           

Sure. It’s the same area?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It’s in the same broad area, yes.

QUESTION:                           

You have an option to send two more Super Hornets; why would you need them?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We remain comfortable with the rate of efforts. We’ve got six there, the eight was if we needed to have more capacity and depending on how our ability to stay in the aircraft while deployed – that’s going well at the moment, so it remains an option but there’s not the need to do so.

QUESTION:                           

And apologies, you’ve probably told me this, but the – roughly when did that attack on the cave complex near Kirkuk happen? Was it a week ago, a day ago…

VINCENT IERVASI:                

No, it was about a week ago.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:     

[Indistinct] … any last questions?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Thank you very much.

*         *         End         *         *


post
Issued by Ministerial and Executive Coordination and Communication,
Department of Defence,
Canberra, ACT
Phone: 02 6127 1999 Fax: 02 6265 6946

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